Ominous score, surging strings, an insistent rapping, the house lights drop and the curtain rises for “Dracula,” Ballet San Antonio’s first salvo in its inaugural season as the resident ballet company at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.
Artistic Director Gabriel Zertuche‘s “Dracula” is a full-length ballet based on Bram Stoker’s chilling, classic tale set to a haunting score by Philip Feeney. The ballet’s neoclassical and contemporary choreography and sharply-rendered characters premiered in 2011 to packed theaters.
Ballet Mistress Amy Fotee and Zertuche have a chemistry in the studio, Fote demurring to Zertuche on details of the choreography while making grace notes that improve upon or better define the choreographer’s intention. She emphasizes the interactions between the dancers so that they are not simply hitting the mark, but conveying meaning that informs the plot line.
The company has a maturity and confidence that has blossomed over the past year. This is not by accident or coincidence. It is by plan and discipline. A balance of love and pain, carrot and stick. The company has grown from 20 to 32 dancers with the move to the Tobin.
“While ballet is very technical and athletic, acting is critical,” Zertuche said. “Dracula, for example, is cunning and panther-like in his movements. Amy excels in pulling this artistry from the dancers in order to tell Bram Stoker’s story most vividly and passionately.”
Zertuche’s staging and story transitions knit this classic tale of horror into a compelling evening of dance.
Sarah Pautz, as the lovely Mina, transforms from proper ingénue into Dracula’s Bride with a lascivious relish through dances with Jayson Pescasio and John Harker. Yanaylet Lopez is a standout as the coquettish Lucy, the innocent belle of the ball, only to fall prey to Dracula. Ian Morris in the title role controls the stage with his presence and style, dominating – as is required – all of those that he comes into contact with. The Corps de Ballet and soloists are strong throughout carrying the story forward with grace and precision.
It is this depth of approach across the company staff that will take Ballet San Antonio from regional to professional.
Earlier in the day, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff presented checks totaling $175,000 to each of the “Big 3” companies at The Tobin -– the San Antonio Symphony, Ballet, and Opera San Antonio – with $50,000 going to the ballet.
“I can sleep a tiny bit better. At least I can make payroll,” said Ballet San Antonio President and Executive Director Courtney Mauro Barker prior to curtain.
A day in the life of an arts administrator – there is never a moment to rest, certainly not when you are as ambitious as this relatively young company.
Founded as a regional company in 1985, Ballet San Antonio finds itself as one of the crown jewels in the arts firmament of San Antonio. Barker served as the company’s director of communications from 2009 until she was promoted to her current position in 2011.
Her background in finance, marketing, and sales gained from her tenure with the Phyllis Browning Company is being put to good use building the company’s artistic and business profile. Born and raised in San Antonio, she saw fit to return to her hometown to make her mark after attending the University of Texas for a degree in communications with a concentration in public relations.
Barker’s partner in crime is Zertuche, who came to the company as a dancer in 2006, working his way steadily up the ladder as ballet master, choreographer, and ultimately to his current position in 2012. He has been a part of building a talent foundation in San Antonio that would allow the organization to truly thrive. It has been a slow but steady build.
Watching Principal Dancer Ian Morris put the title character through the paces, I am reminded that last season Morris was put out of commission entirely. He was in a walking cast for months with an injury. Fortunately, he is well-healed, bringing a robust and polished technique to his work – and a frightening malevolence. He is reprising his role as the bloody Count Dracula and it is good to see him back in fine form.
Newly minted Fote brings a laser focus to rehearsal. An internationally renowned ballerina, she was most recently principal dancer with Houston Ballet. With her extensive personal repertoire gained over her successful performing career, she brings a professionalism to this company that is inescapable.
“So many talented dancers,” Fote said. “This year I know my approach is going to be different. I am truly finding that for me, I want to be known as an artist. I want them as dancers to become their own artists. There is so much that I want to share. I feel that it is important to make the audience ‘lean in.’”
The technical capacity of a venue like the Tobin is prodigious. The sets and costumes work well enough, but ballet fans are hungry for more. Story ballets are always rendered larger than life, and oftentimes the success of a production will hinge on the technical assets. This requires money, plain and simple. Like the opera, ballet is expensive to produce – not only in terms of the human capital but because of all of the accoutrements required to create an A-list production. You can dream it, you can render it, but build it? That is a very serious investment, and one that Ballet San Antonio aspires to.
San Antonio audiences have a treat to look forward to with this production and throughout the 2014-15 season. Following “Dracula,” the company partners with the San Antonio Symphony to perform the only San Antonio production of “The Nutcracker” Nov. 28-Dec. 7.
On Valentine’s Day weekend, Ballet San Antonio and the Symphony again collaborate to stage “Romeo and Juliet” by award-winning choreographer Ben Stevenson, who is also a Ballet San Antonio advisory board member. In March, the company will perform contemporary works, with a spotlight on “Donizetti Variations” by George Balanchine, founder of New York City Ballet.
The last presentation of the season is particularly exciting. The George Balanchine Trust, which is responsible for preserving the iconic choreographer’s creative works, granted Ballet San Antonio the right to perform one of Mr. Balanchine’s works after they were provided background about the company’s continuing artistic accomplishments. Gaining the permission to perform this Balanchine work marks another major milestone in gaining national recognition.
All this work, all this recognition, but the real question is whether San Antonio is ready to fully support a world-class ballet company. I shared this question with veteran San Antonio dancer, Georgina Morgan and her answer was candid.
“What will it take for San Antonio to seriously support dance? I’ve been asking myself for years. San Antonio audiences can be finicky. What they support in droves at first will eventually fade in interest,” she said. “I think local audiences like both classical and modern performances – old and new concepts. They like to be courted with performances that promote excitement and curiosity.
“I think the key, and ultimately the challenge, for Ballet San Antonio will be quality programming that captivates, plus community projects and involvement (like Project Plié or free performances), which garners a constant presence in our collective consciousness,” Morgan said. “It’s a tall order right? Like your favorite restaurant that is consistently good but still offers new menu items. I think Courtney and Gabe have the drive and determination and vision to meet that challenge. They’ve already done a good job so far to wake up our sleepy city. I like ‘Dracula,’ but I’m excited to see Balanchine in the Spring. And it’s all just a mile down the street.”
“Dracula” opened on Thursday evening with 8 p.m. performances running through Sunday, Oct. 19, with a 2 p.m. matinée. Season tickets for all Ballet San Antonio performances as well as individual tickets are available at the Tobin Center Box Office by calling 210.223.8624 or contacting www.tobincenter.org.
*Featured/top image courtesy Ballet San Antonio.